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Doe v. George Street Photo & Video, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. California

June 28, 2016

JANE DOE, Plaintiff,


          MARIA-ELENA JAMES United States Magistrate Judge


         Pending before the Court is Plaintiff Jane Doe's ("Plaintiff") Request to Proceed Under a Pseudonym and for a Protective Order, which seeks to preserve Plaintiff's privacy and prevent Defendant George Street Photo & Video, LLC ("George Street") and other Doe Defendants (collectively, "Defendants") from publicly disclosing Plaintiff's identity. Req., Dkt. No. 10. Plaintiff served George Street with this Request and supporting documents (Certificate of Serv., Dkt. No. 12), and George Street has not filed objections or any other response. Meanwhile, Plaintiff has filed an Amended Complaint, Dkt. No. 13, and given the newly asserted claims, has also filed a Supplemental Brief in support of her Request to proceed pseudonymously, Dkt. No. 14. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS Plaintiff's Request to Proceed Under a Pseudonym and for a Protective Order.


         Plaintiff's suit arises from the online publication of excerpts of her private wedding video, which she alleges "went viral" and have been viewed "by millions of Internet users" across the world. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 58-60. These excerpts allegedly depict Plaintiff's new and "obviously inebriated" husband "perform[ing] a series of sexually suggestive and other inappropriate acts [] directed toward Plaintiff, " her "emotional reaction" to this behavior, and Plaintiff being consoled by her family and friends. Id. ¶¶ 51-52. In addition, Plaintiff asserts that "hundreds of Internet users published comments ridiculing and personally criticizing" her. Req. at 3. Plaintiff alleges the publication of the video excerpts has caused her to suffer several ongoing harms, including severe psychological and emotional distress, reputational damage, etc. Id. at 3, 6. In addition, Plaintiff, whose name has not yet been linked to the video, fears that if unable to proceed under a pseudonym and with a protective order, her name will become associated with the video, resulting in further emotional distress and potentially irreparable harm to her reputation and career. Id.


         Ordinarily, pleadings must identify the names of parties to a suit. Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a). However, "a party may preserve his or her anonymity in judicial proceedings in special circumstances when the party's need for anonymity outweighs prejudice to the opposing party and the public's interest in knowing the party's identity." Does I through XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp., 214 F.3d 1058, 1068 (9th Cir. 2000). In cases where pseudonyms "are used to shield the anonymous party from retaliation, " the Court, in evaluating the need for anonymity, also considers (1) the severity of the threatened harm, (2) the reasonableness of the anonymous party's fears, (3) the anonymous party's vulnerability to retaliation, and (4) the prejudice to the opposing party and whether proceedings may be structured to avoid that prejudice. Id. at 1068 (citations omitted). Additionally, the Court "must decide whether the public's interest in the case would be best served by requiring that the litigants reveal their identities." Id. (citation omitted).

         Ultimately, "[t]he question is one of balance." Jane Roes 1-2 v. SFBSC Mgmt., LLC, 77 F.Supp. 3d 990, 993 (N.D. Cal. 2015). As the Ninth Circuit explained:

[A] district court must balance the need for anonymity against the general presumption that parties' identities are public information and the risk of unfairness to the opposing party. . . . Applying this balancing test, courts have permitted plaintiffs to use pseudonyms in three situations: (1) when identification creates a risk of retaliatory physical or mental harm . . .; (2) when anonymity is necessary "to preserve privacy in a matter of sensitive and highly personal nature" . . .; and (3) when the anonymous party is "compelled to admit [his or her] intention to engage in illegal conduct, thereby risking criminal prosecution[.]"

Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1068 (citations and quotations omitted); see also Jane Roes 1-2, 77 F.Supp. 3d at 993 (recognizing that "[i]n this circuit, . . . we allow parties to use pseudonyms" where it is "necessary" to "protect a person from . . . ridicule or personal embarrassment." (quoting Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1068 (emphasis in Jane Roes 1-2))); cf. Doe v. Standard Ins. Co., 2015 WL 5778566, at *3 (D. Me. Oct. 2, 2015) (indicating that something more than general "[l]itigation-related stress and a general desire for privacy" is needed to justify the granting of a request to proceed under a pseudonym). The Ninth Circuit has, however, recognized that "the balance between a party's need for anonymity and the interests weighing in favor of open judicial proceedings may change as the litigation progresses." Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1069. Weighing Defendants' and the public's interests against Plaintiffs privacy concerns, the Court finds Plaintiffs need for anonymity currently outweighs the public's interest in her identity and the potential for prejudice to Defendants. First, with regard to prejudice to the opposing party, despite being served with this Request, George Street has in no way opposed it or articulated how it may suffer any degree of prejudice if Plaintiff proceeds pseudonymously. Plaintiff further notes that George Street has known her identity for almost a year through its participation in pre-filing settlement negotiations and has thus far refrained from disclosing any information identifying her. Req. at 4; Burgoyne Decl. ¶ 5, Dkt. No. 11. Thus, under the present circumstances, the Court identifies no prejudice to Defendants in allowing Plaintiff to proceed pseudonymously.

         Second, while the public interest always favors open access to judicial proceedings and there is a general presumption against anonymity, Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1067, the Court does not perceive any particular interest the public might have in knowing Plaintiffs identity. The subject of these proceedings can be understood and scrutinized regardless of Plaintiff s identity. See id at 1072 ("[W]e fail to see [] how disguising plaintiffs' identit[y] will obstruct public scrutiny of the important issues in this case." (footnote omitted)). Furthermore, the public may have an interest in allowing Plaintiff to proceed under a pseudonym because, among other things, Plaintiff has indicated she would rather dismiss her claims than pursue them if pursuing them means exposing her identity. Burgoyne Decl. ¶ 4. To deny Plaintiffs request under the circumstances of this case might not only prevent Plaintiff from proceeding on her claim, but might also discourage others who suffer online public shaming and other such offenses from asserting their claims for fear of further cyber-related exposure. See Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1073 ("[P]ermitting plaintiffs to use a pseudonym will serve the public's interest in this lawsuit by enabling it to go forward."); Doe v. Rostker, 89 F.R.D. 158, 162 (N.D. Cal. 1981) (noting the "most compelling situations" when plaintiffs should be permitted to use pseudonyms include those "where the injury litigated against would occur as a result of the disclosure of the plaintiff's identity."). While such a concern might not be sufficient in all cases, under the current circumstances, the Court finds the public interest does not presently weigh against Plaintiff being allowing to proceed under a pseudonym and may actually weigh in her favor.

         Finally, Plaintiff's interest in protecting her identity is compelling at this point. "This district has . . . considered 'social stigmatization' [to be] among the 'most compelling' reasons for permitting anonymity. . . . [which] is consistent with the Ninth Circuit's instruction in Advanced Textile that anonymity is permitted where the subject matter of a case is 'sensitive and highly personal[.]'" Jane Roes 1-2, 77 F.Supp. 3d at 994. Plaintiff alleges Defendants' actions resulted in the mass exposure of the sensitive and highly personal excerpts of her wedding video, leading to the public openly scrutinizing and criticizing her online. She alleges this "public shaming" has caused her great embarrassment, humiliation, and emotional distress (Am. Compl. ¶ 63), and while thus far her name is not associated with this video, it is reasonable that she risks further stigmatization and embarrassment if her name is linked to the video. In cases such as this one, when plaintiffs have expressed "legitimate concern for their privacy" and "an understandable fear of social stigmatization, " it is fitting to allow them to proceed under pseudonyms. Id. at 993; see also Roe v. Ingraham, 364 F.Supp. 536, 541 n.7 (S.D.N.Y. 1973) ("[I]f plaintiffs are required to reveal their identity prior to the adjudication [of their case] on the merits . . ., they will already have sustained the injury which by this litigation they seek to avoid.").

         Thus, given the lack of prejudice to Defendants and the public as compared with Plaintiff's legitimate privacy concerns, the Court will allow Plaintiff to proceed anonymously. However, as noted, courts have discretion to reevaluate the need to proceed pseudonymously as litigation progresses, as "the balance between a party's need for anonymity and the interests weighing in favor of open judicial proceedings may change[.]" Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1069. Consequently, while the Court GRANTS ...

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